The Day the Water Bubble Burst

From SR Council Watch

On September 15, 2009, the Sonoma County water bubble burst when Supervisors voted to deep-six a grand design, known as the “Water Plan,” intended to increase future supplies of the wet stuff. After over 15 years of work, the Sonoma County Water Authority (SCWA) no longer saw any prospect of success for the Plan’s central elements: an application to the State for more diversions from the Russian River and building a pipeline to move more water from Lake Sonoma to consumers like those in Santa Rosa.

County Supervisors, acting in their dual capacity as SCWA Directors, bowed to funding and environmental problems. The pipeline and associated facilities would cost $600 million or more, and a recent federal “Biological Opinion” is forcing SCWA not only to reduce water flows in one of its major conduits, Dry Creek, but also to rehab the stream at a cost that could exceed $100 million. Factor in greenhouse gas considerations (from pumping) along with a probable decrease of supply from Eel River diversions, and the SCWA Water Plan could no longer be kept afloat.

In the short term, Santa Rosans won’t go thirsty. The City’s 2008 Water Supply Assessment (WSA) credibly asserted we can sustain projected population growth until 2015 with existing supplies. In fact, said the WSA, those existing supplies can carry us until 2018, as long as the City refrains from connecting up a significant number of services that now use private wells.

Against the above background, it’s hard to grasp why Santa Rosa officials asked the courts to prevent SCWA from withdrawing its water rights application and abandoning the Water Plan. To a water issue newbie, neither of these objectives made much sense – the State was virtually certain to refuse to give SCWA more water rights, and the pipeline really would cost too much money, not to mention adverse environmental impacts. No surprise then, that the judge tossed the City suit overboard.

In their defense, however, city officials were pursuing more subtle objectives. One was the legal argument that any local authority in California should hold its place in a water rights queue to protect its claim in the event that an odd drop unexpectedly becomes available later. An SCWA press release suggested some flexibility on this issue, so the City may have scored a small point.

A second City objective was to buy time to wring more specific information out of SCWA for redoing city plans that depend heavily on SCWA water supplies in the out years from 2015 to 2035. This is far more critical than it might appear, because in all this, Santa Rosa’s serious underlying problem, greatly aggravated by the pipeline’s disappearance, is to demonstrate the City will have enough water to carry out its current General Plan. That document projects a population increase from just over 160,000 today to more than 233,000 in 2035 — and that’s a lot of new water faucets.

The City’s 2008 Water Supply Assessment, mentioned above, was required by law (SB 610) to identify adequate future water for all development foreseen in the General Plan. The WSA asserted that after existing supplies are tapped out in 2015/18, enough water could be found from a combination of SCWA and groundwater supplies plus, if necessary, recycled water and conservation. Sounds good, but with or without the pipeline, this formulation masked some serious causes for doubt — shaky assumptions about SCWA projections, unknowns about groundwater sustainability, and uncertainties about public willingness to accept “stringent” conservation measures as well as potentially high costs of recycle programs.

Put another way, the WSA relied on buckets of “paper water;” that is to say, it assumed supplies that most probably won’t in fact be available when the time comes to open additional taps. But pro-growth City Council Members (and County Supervisors) for years have encouraged optimistic supply projections like those in the now defunct “Water Plan” in order to justify expansive development. When the WSA came up for approval in November 2008, the Council Members in power before last year’s election readily signed off on its questionable long range findings – except for Council Member Jacobi, who voted “no.”

That continued the traditional pattern. But now that the bubble has burst, what comes next for Santa Rosa?

If the City faces up to new realities, it will urgently revisit the 2008 WSA and do a lot more than just rework SCWA supply numbers. It must begin to formulate a groundwater management regime (recommended by the Sonoma County Grand Jury in 2004), and take whatever preliminary steps it can to get a handle on groundwater use until essential data comes in from studies to be completed in 2010. It must get moving with new recycle programs and “off peak” storage facilities, while laying out clear scenarios for ratepayers so they can evaluate fee increases required to finance such facilities. It must help people better understand what the limits might be for conservation, and show how its burdens (and benefits) can be fairly distributed.

Above all, the City must relook development plans for the years after 2015/18 and meet the spirit as well as the letter of recent State laws (SB 610 and SB 212) designed to assure that enough real, wet, water will be there when faucets are turned on in 2035.

Jim Wilkinson